Putin says new PM could be a presidential contender

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MOSCOW, Sep 14 (Reuters) Russian President Vladimir Putin said today there were at least five people who could stake a claim to succeed him and suggested Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov might be a contender if he performed well in his new job.

Zubkov, 65, nominated prime minister in a surprise choice by Putin, was confirmed in the post by parliament today.

''(Zubkov) said he does not rule out running (for the presidency),'' Russian television showed Putin saying. The Kremlin chief was referring to a comment made yesterday by Zubkov after his nomination.

''I think that was a calm and balanced answer. It is hard to tell now. He still has to work, in a pretty difficult period, and we have to get the ... (parliamentary) elections out the way. Then we will see.'' ''A year or a year and a half ago people said the field is empty and there is no one to choose from. Now people name at least five people who can realistically stake a claim to being elected as president of Russia in March 2008,'' Putin added.

Putin must step down next year because under the constitution he can serve only two consecutive terms in office. He can return in 2012 after his successor has served a term.

Putin has said that when the time is right he will indicate who he endorses as his replacement, and his huge popularity means that person is almost assured of victory in the March 2008 presidential election.

His choice of Zubkov, a low-profile financial regulator, to replace sacked prime minister Mikhail Fradkov surprised many commentators who had been expecting a political heavyweight.

REUTERS RAR AS2043

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